Devices (home)

Leaving My Heart in Africa

by Katrina Marks

  DEVICES Home Page  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | March 2016  |      


I want to throw my phone out the window. I can feel it in my hand—light, buoyant almost, like it knows what it’s done and actually wants to fly from my hand. I can see it—the way the thin web of fractures will spread over the screen. It will be satisfying for about a quarter of a second. And then I will be devastated. I will cry.

And I refuse to cry over a broken phone.

I was never one of those people: the ones who have the Apple logo scorched into their palms, who see a dead zone as a precursor of a post-apocalyptic world, who make faces at Snapchat like they’re trying to entertain a fussy two-year old. I always rolled my eyes at those people. I was that bitch.

And then I entered a long-distance relationship.

WhatsApp is the most successful messaging app in the world, according to a 2015 study by The Economist. Over 700 million people worldwide have downloaded it, and they use it more often than traditional text messaging. So I have to wonder, how many of those 700 million people have thrown their phones out the window?

My screen is staring at me expectantly, anxiously. There is a little green bubble with the word “Hi” inside and one check mark next to it. One means it was sent. It’s drifting through the air above my head and out into space. Two would mean it’s bounced across the right number of servers in the right order to arrive at his phone. Apparently, this time, it’s stuck somewhere among the satellites, ricocheting between servers like a metal ball in an arcade pinball machine.

At the 24-hour mark, I google WhatsApp troubleshooting and send an email to a support address. The message is more frantic than intended.

“I read the FAQ articles on your website and tried everything. I’ve rebooted my phone several times, deleted and reinstalled WhatsApp, updated my iOS, disconnected and reconnected to Wifi and 3G, and reset my network settings to the factory standard, but nothing has yielded a result. Please help!”

After 48 hours my message finds its way out of the maze.

I receive a prompt response from the WhatsApp Support Team two months later.

“Hi, thanks for contacting WhatsApp. Our support team has received your request. It may take us a while to reply, so please check out our FAQ in the meantime.”

I close the email and stand in front of the window with my phone in my hand.

I’m not your typical romantic. It’s not that I have any particular animosity toward the emotion. In fact, my reluctance is probably a cue that I hold it in a high and anxious regard. Like everyone, I’ve read the fairy tales and seen the rom-coms. I just prefer adventure stories.

Here’s one.

When David Livingstone, the famously intrepid and infamously irritable 19th century explorer planned for his death, he had one stipulation: leave a part of me in the land belonging to my heart. He died under a tree in Zambia. His best friend, a medicine man named Susi, cut out his heart and buried it on the spot, then mummified the body and carried it back to England. His heart remains in Africa to this day.

I didn’t have plans to die in Africa, though my mother was sure it would happen. She filled my suitcase to bursting with every type of medication, bandage and mosquito repellant approved by the requisite number of doctors. She brought family members by the house in a rotation to say goodbye—and good luck. She reminded me daily, all the way to the airport parking lot in Detroit, that I could just stay home this summer.

I smiled, hugged her, picked up my 46.7 lb suitcase and made my way through the polyester-lined maze to security. A brief 36 hours later, I touched down in Zanzibar.

Zanzibar—like Timbuktu and Mars—is one of those places people use as a synonym for “exotic, far-off location.” And it looks the part. The semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania is small, spotted with palm trees and covered in white sand beaches and tourists. Stone Town is the capital city, comprising about two square miles of limestone cityscape. Its population is almost entirely Muslim, and the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer is woven with salt and humidity into the air itself. The people are of more varied backgrounds: Omani Arabs, Indians, Goans, Tanzanians of various tribal descents. They don’t all get along. They do all speak Swahili.

Though I was asked many times, I’m not sure what I expected to find in this place. I was there primarily to work, to volunteer at a female empowerment NGO and to conduct fieldwork for my senior thesis on the collective memory of the East African slave trade. That’s what I wrote on the visa application at least. What I was really looking for, I think, was an adventure story. And I found one.

It just also happened to be a romance.

I was proposed to four times in my first week. Most were young boys. Most were joking. The one I wrote home to my mother about was a member of the Maasai tribe. He claimed to have killed a lion, after all. And it always works wonders for the self-esteem when a girl knows her exact value in cattle.

My friends at my research site laughed at me. For my thesis fieldwork, I was spending two or three hours every day with the tour guides at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral and Former Slave Market Site. When visitors came for tours, I would follow them around and observe, scribbling notes and drawing suspicious glances. The guides found it odd, but were willing to help. And when the afternoons were slow, we sat in front of the church and talked. They taught me Swahili and asked about my life while I tried to glean wisdom about Stone Town.

“Hahaha! How many cattle for you Kathrin?” David, the first guide I met, assumed my name was more like Katherine than Katrina, and it stuck.


“Haha, hakuna matata. Some people here like to joke with tourists, you know.”

I knew. Hakuna matata itself was a joke, a Kenyan phrase pulled out for Disney-bred tourists who periodically broke out in chorus: “it means no worries.” None of the tour guides lacked a sense of humor, though some exercised it more than others. Elvis was one of those.

I started following his tours because of the comedy. He introduces himself as the “King of Rock and Roll.” Then he asks the tourists if they speak Swahili. They say no. So he starts speaking Swahili. They laugh at first, then start looking at me in desperate confusion. Finally he takes mercy and starts again in English.

“You know of David Livingstone?” He asks. They nod.

“His body is buried in Westminster Abbey, you know, but his heart is not there with it.” Cue looks of surprise.

“His heart is in Africa. After he died, his friend cut it out and buried it in Zambia. So, now, his heart is in Africa, his body is in England. Who can say where his soul is?”

I couldn’t answer the question of Livingstone’s soul. But I did say yes to a date.

“So we will go together, sawa?” He looked at me expectantly, trying to lean casually against the gate. But I could tell he was nervous.

Sawa, okay.”

I don’t think he expected me to say yes. He paused for a beat, and then stood up straight and smiled at me. I smiled back. We made a plan to see the football (read: soccer) game that evening. We exchanged phone numbers, I said an awkward goodbye and stepped through the gate, out of the church compound and onto the street. I caught stares on the walk home. Why is the mzungu girl smiling like that?

The mzungu girl smiled like that for exactly two weeks.

The night after the football game, we went to the beach for a moonlit walk: coral rocks, crashing waves, blue bio-luminescent micro-algae embedded like stars in the sand.

The next night he gave me a walking tour of Stone Town’s most historic structures: The House of Wonders, where the Omani Sultans lived throughout most of the 19th century, Fordhani Port, where everything from cinnamon to slaves were shipped out, and the Old Fort, where the Portuguese held their stronghold in the 16th century.

We sat in the Fort and talked about the tourists. I was still following tours and interviewing people for my research. On that morning, a British family had told me I was brave. They’d heard about a bombing at the church the year before.

“Yeah, it was there. A small one, more like a grenade.” He was casual about it, though he had been standing by the gate that day half an hour before the bomb went off. He promised to show me the crater it left in the pavement, but never did.

He, like the rest of my friends at the church, was disappointed in my Swahili.

My teacher, Joseph, was hired by my volunteer program to teach my roommate and me every weeknight from 6 to 7 pm. He was a short man, completely bald, with a round stomach and seven children at the time—one of his own, two adopted and four fostered—whom he taught English, French, German and Spanish. Like Elvis, his day job was guiding tours.

Technically, it was supposed to be a “Survival Swahili” class, but our vocabulary list wouldn’t have helped us survive anywhere. Joseph preferred to focus on the pronunciation of the double consonant. So I learned words like mchele (uncooked rice), ngombe (cow), and mwenyewe (alone). Elvis told me I pronounced Swahili like a local, but he laughed out loud every time I showed him my notes.

Unauza maji hapa? (Are you selling water here?) was the first sentence he taught me. I used it, along with its frequent precursor, leo joto sana (today is very hot), almost every morning. He taught me kuhusudu (to adore) and kupenda (to love) as well, but I didn’t use those as often.

I taught him very important words too. Unlike Joseph, Elvis didn’t speak any languages other than English and Swahili. He’d gone to a prep school in Kenya with an intensive language program, so he was confident in his English, but still willing to learn more. Once, while walking through a dark and uneven parking lot, I stumbled. To me, a person who has accepted her lifelong misunderstanding with gravity, it was nothing. Elvis stopped and stared.

Pole sana, sorry, are you good?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m just clumsy.” Blank stare.

“What is clumsy?”

“Oh, um,” what is clumsy? “It just means I trip all the time. I’m not very graceful.” He asked me to spell it, then made a note in his flip phone. I tripped two more times before the week was done. Every time he repeated the word and smiled at me, holding out a steady hand.

Shortly after our third date, he asked me a new question in Swahili: “Lini utarudi Merikani?” (When will you return to America?).

“Two weeks.”

He frowned.

I’d known from the start, of course, that it would be a short-lived thing. The few people I’d known who had carried on relationships abroad had accepted them for what they were: fun and brief. I wasn’t accustomed to short relationships—or any relationships, really—but I figured I would enjoy it as long as I could, assuming he was thinking along the same lines.

“Do you have to go?”

“Um, well, yes.” I have a flight booked.

“Are you sure?”

“Elvis, what do you want, exactly?” I surprised both of us with that one. Honest confrontation? Me?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you want to go out now and say goodbye in a few weeks or what are you thinking here?”

“Katrina, I want your heart.” Oh.


He looked at me with a pained expression. Do people actually talk that way in real life? I am not one of those people. What do I say? I need to say something. Fuck.

“Like Livingstone? Should I leave my heart here?” Really, you’re going to bring up the dead British guy? Romantic choice.

“Haha…wait, no, no, I don’t mean the actual—“

“Yeah, I got that.”

There were challenges, 8,237 of them—not to mention the fact that he owned a Zantel flip phone. Local numbers only. He’d lost his smartphone months before, when a man with a machete followed him on his way home. I could email him, but he only checked it at the Internet café once a month or so. Mail to the island was unreliable, and at least as expensive as international calling rates.

There are few things I consider impossible, but this seemed to be one.

When I was a child, I was obsessed with two love stories: Cinderella and Prince Charming, and Carol and Steve. Carol and Steve lived across the street, and every Friday night they and my parents drank fine wine and discussed the current political climate. Sometimes they reminisced about younger years. Carol met Steve in high school in the 60s. Three years later he was drafted for Vietnam, and they got engaged before he left. For two years, they communicated only by standard mail and infrequent phone calls. One day she wrote him a Dear John, and that seemed to be the end of it—until they realized they were miserable and got back together. He came home. They got married, and now I babysit their grandkids in the summer.

Elvis asked me two more times if I could cancel my flight, stay one more month in Stone Town, “just have more time.” I told him I had a job to go back to, people who were expecting me. Silently, I was telling him this was impossible, there’s no way we could even try. And in the back of my mind I was thinking about Carol and Steve.

So for two weeks we dated, a terrible goodbye looming closer every day. And then one night at my doorstep he announced he was going to buy a new phone.

“Wait, really?”

“Yes, you know its time for me to get a new one. And also we will be chatting on WhatsApp.”

So we said goodbye, and at 3am on July 4th I got on the plane to go back to America, feeling overwhelmed and anxious and guilty. Smartphones in Zanzibar cost at least $100, or 200,000 Tanzanian shillings. With a special deal worked out with a friend at the phone store, it took him two weeks to save up the money. For those two weeks, I checked my email every day at 11 am Eastern Standard Time (6 pm Eastern Africa Time), waiting to see if he made it to a computer after work. He did, every day.

Then one morning I heard a ping from WhatsApp. And I became one of the girls with the phone at the end of her arm. I became a girl who dives across the room when the screen lights up, who stays up all night because of a seven-hour time difference, who emails WhatsApp support over a missing check mark and imagines men with machetes and bombs in churches.

So here I stand, staring through a pane of glass, waiting for the light and the ding that will end the silence.

It’s not the technology I’m frustrated with, really. It’s the distance: 8,237 miles. And the time: 10 months. I knew him for six weeks, only two of which we actually spent dating. And now I am spending the greater part of a year getting to know him through a keyboard. No Skype. No calls—unless we count those two- or five-second breakthroughs when I can hear a muffled “Hello? Can you hear me?” before the line cuts out.

And yet what is that distance? It’s the span of a server, a satellite drifting through space. It’s the distance of my finger from the keyboard, of my face from the camera. We use WhatsApp. We trade selfies back and forth. We practice English and Swahili. We memorize each other’s time zones. I have near-constant communication with a man who sees his sun rise when mine sets.

We still feel the miles, of course. Every single one. We still imagine what the other’s hand feels like and wake in the dark clinging to phantoms. We still watch each other forget the small things, the memories that slip through the treasured vault of our time together, and type out frantic reminders on glass screens. We still fear silence.

I would like to roll my eyes at myself, really I would. In my mother’s words, it’s “impractical.” It probably won’t end well. It will probably hurt.

But what if it doesn’t?

What if I don’t need to die to leave my heart somewhere else?

What if an adventure and a romance can be the same story?

end of story

© 2016, Katrina Marks Go to top